Pay talks for Scotland's 50,000 teachers will begin on February 29 when the unions submit their claim for the 12 months beginning in April. It is likely to be the most inauspicious round of bargaining since the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee was established twenty years ago.
The TES Scotland understands that most of the 32 new education authorities have budgeted for rises of no more than 2 per cent, despite the announcement this week that the pay review body for teachers in England and Wales has backed an increase of 3.8 per cent.
Although a Cabinet decision was awaited as we went to press, this will inevitably become the benchmark for Scottish negotiators.
The authorities, hit by Scottish Office caps on spending, the costs of local government reform and self-financing pay awards, had the severity of the financial position underlined this week by Bob Gould, leader of Glasgow City Council. Mr Gould appealed to staff to accept a pay freeze this year to save pound;22 million. The council faces a pound;40 million budget shortfall and the alternative, he warned, was massive job losses.
Union leaders made it clear they would "look askance" at any failure to match an award south of the border. Craig Duncan, depute general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, said he "saw no reason why, despite all their moaning and groaning, Scottish councils could not match a similar award in Scotland".
Mr Duncan added: "Our case for a productivity settlement is at least as strong, and the English authorities will also have to bear the full brunt of the extra wage costs."
A settlement of around 3.8 per cent would add more than pound;40 million to the current pound;1.1 billion pay bill for Scottish teachers.
Increases in the past two years have totalled some pound;65 million, with no Government contribution, an extra burden on councils which is equivalent to 2,800 teachers, or 5 per cent of the teaching force. Local authorities have also had to find pound;15 million for non-teaching staff, the equivalent of total spending on books and educational materials in primary schools.
The Scottish Office claims that council spending is 30 per cent higher in Scotland compared with England, while public spending overall on education is 25 per cent greater per head.
Figures supplied to The TESS by the Scottish Office also confirm that the authorities spend more per pupil: pound;1,812 in the primary sector compared with pound;1,630 in England, and pound;2,844 in secondaries against pound;2,245 south of the border.
Norie Williamson, assistant secretary at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, accepted the figures but disputed the validity of the comparison. Cosla has long argued that sparsity of population, higher levels of unemployment and social deprivation, climatic extremes and greater supply costs push up council spending levels.
Scottish local government has also had responsibility for more services, most notably water (although that will be transferred to three of quangos from April). Cosla points out, too, that school pupils are almost entirely educated in the local authority sector, unlike in England which has a significant number of self-governing and private schools. Judith Gillespie, convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said the Education Minister' attention had been drawn during their recent meeting to the fact that Scottish education authorities employ more teachers because of the limit on class size.
The ceiling of 20 pupils in practical classes was another factor in pushing up costs. But, Mrs Gillespie added, this paid off in better results, particularly in science.
Colin Mair, director of the Scottish Local Authorities' Management Centre at Strathclyde University, agreed: "There is no such thing as an average spend since an area like Highland, with a large number of small primary schools, cannot be compared with Glasgow. Any cross-border comparisons should be between affluent areas or cities like Glasgow and Newcastle."
Latest figures from the Charted Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy confirm wide trends even within Scotland. Council spending per head on education ranges from pound;395 in Lothian to pound;919 in Shetland.
Dr Mair added: "The differential figures which the Scottish Office produces are in any case ones ministers have approved, because it is they who set the limits both on overall spending and on capping. So the higher Scottish figure must represent the Government's best judgment of need."
The bleak prospect for pay negotiators, however, is that councils are already spending 2 per cent more on education than the Scottish Office assessment on which the allocations to authorities are based.
"The councils' predicament is a genuine one this time and not the cries of wolf to which they have been accused of resorting in the past," Dr Mair said.
Cosla expects overall expenditure for local government to rise by 0.3 per cent in each of the next two years and the Government's grant to be reduced by 1 per cent during that time. These figures translate into an immediate council tax increase of 8 per cent before pay awards are even considered, according to Cosla.
The Scottish Office and Cosla agreed in July to mount a joint study into why Scottish per capita spending on council services is higher. But this could take two years to complete.